One of the things that surprised me when my wife and I first started learning about chickens is that they can survive in the winter in cold climates. I had assumed that chickens were only in warmer climates year round. Instead I learned, as long as a few basics are ensured, they can thrive throughout the winter.
In this post I’m discussing climates with snow and temperatures down to -25 °F (-32 °C). If you’re in northern Alaska, further research is encouraged.
While you need to keep an eye on your chickens at all times, it is especially important during the winter. Chickens should be checked at least twice daily and any problems will need to be fixed quickly. Predators can still be an issue during the winter, so look for any openings in the run or coop and fix them promptly. You’ll want to monitor the ammonia levels in the coop.
Digesting food helps warm the body – this is biology and is true for us as well as chickens – so providing continuous access to feed as well as water is important.
You’ll want to collect eggs before they freeze, which is added motivation for keeping a close eye on your flock.
Different breeds handle temperature changes better or worse. A hardy breed, like Rhodes Island Reds, handle cold weather much better than fragile breeds, like Leghorns. You want to avoid chickens with large combs, as these can get frost bitten.
Younger chickens are far more sensitive to temperature than adults. Try to avoid having any juvenile birds during the winter – only fully feathered birds.
Like other living creatures, chickens need continuous access to water. If their water freezes over, it will be very hard on them. Deicers are commercially available – they’re usually intended for dogs and other pets, but will work fine in a run with electricity. There are other DIY solutions you can think about if the weather isn’t too harsh where you’re located.
You’ll want to inspect the roof and windows on the coop and seal any cracks with shingles or caulk. You’re trying to avoid moisture getting into the chicken’s bedding and drafts.
If you have electricity to your coop, a heat lamp (basically a light bulb) can provide heat and light for your chickens. Light, for up to 16 hours a day, will help them lay more eggs. The wiring should be done carefully, and the bulb should be placed such that the chickens won’t burn themselves on it – probably up high in the coop.
Many enthusiasts caution AGAINST a heat lamp. There are two links at the bottom of this post that give an overview of the considerations.
Insulation and Ventilation
Insulation can be helpful to keep the temperature up in the coop, but you want to ensure that there is still ventilation. If the windows in your coop have condensation on them in the morning, this is an indication that the ventilation is insufficient.
One philosophy is that bedding should be changed for winter, providing the chickens with as much dry material as possible. Chicken waste is 85% liquid, which introduces moisture into the coop, which is the main thing we’re trying to avoid.
The other view is that the deep litter method can be used, which means you’ll want to have a critical mass of waste already present in the bedding. Chicken waste will decompose in the layers of bedding to create heat.
A dry roost that won’t have drafts is essential. If you decide on electric heat within the coop, you’ll want to direct it at the roost.
Culling The Flock
It’s worth considering whether or not you want to keep chickens during the winter. If part of your plan is to eat your chickens, the first freeze is a good time to consider doing so. Our plan is to eat our chickens before the cold weather hits in order to avoid winterization.